The Walkmen consists of longtime friends Hamilton Leithauser, Walter Martin, Peter Bauer, Matt Barrick and Paul Maroon. After releasing an EP of four songs and playing shows at local New York City clubs, the group issued their full-length debut, Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone, in 2002. The album received rave reviews and earned the group a sizeable following. The band's major breakthrough came with their second full-length album, Bows + Arrows, released in 2004 and featuring the frantic, super-charged hit "The Rat."
Singer Hamilton Leithauser took a moment to talk with Ticketmaster near the release of the Walkmen's latest album, A Hundred Miles Off, and the group's new U.S. tour.
Ticketmaster: How does the new album, A Hundred Miles Off, differ from the band's previous work? Hamilton Leithhauser: It's more like the second record than the first one, I'd say. But I think the songwriting's come a long way. We tried to have a lot of fun in the studio instead of dragging it out like we have in the past. So we did things pretty quickly and tried to keep them light and fun. And the songs were all completed before we got into the studio this time...Last time, we were writing them as we went along. This time we really had an idea of what we were going for on each one beforehand. It was more fun to record this one for us, if that means anything.
TM: Can you describe the songwriting process for the album? HL: It was done in small groups. We tried doing it for about eight months as a five piece and finally realized that it was never going to happen that way. So we split up and then some people came up with some parts and we'd stick them together and try to create something that sounded like a song.
TM: Some of the band members swapped instruments. How did that happen? HL: Yeah. Well, Walt played the organ for, I don't know, 15 years. And I guess he sat down to start writing again and just couldn't take it anymore. And so he wanted to switch it up with Pete who was playing bass and always thought it would be fun to play the organ. So they just switched it up and I think it worked for both of them. We're still together and they're both still in the band. And they're usually in a pretty good mood.
TM: The band has its own recording studio, Marcata, but for the new album you decided not to record there. Why? HL: We just wanted a change of scene...We'd just been there for so long. I knew this guy (producer) Don Zientara from years past in DC. He's a really good guy, and we're all from DC so it seemed like a fun idea. Last time we went somewhere else. We went to Oxford, Mississippi, and we were staying in a hotel. We were there for so long and it was sort of like being on tour, which we do enough of anyhow. So it was fun to go home and stay with our families and commute everyday to Arlington, Virginia and work there. I just thought it would be a nice lifestyle for a little while. So that's why we got out of Marcata.
TM: Your website mentions the band collectively wrote a novel called John's Journey. How did that come about? HL: It came out of unbelievable boredom...You've been with the same guys for so long. You've told every possible joke. Everybody knows everybody else's stories. There's nothing funny you can possibly say. Nobody wants to listen to any music. You're just driving around for 10 hours a day. That just seemed like a long project that could hold interest, and it did. It's really kind of fun when you're driving your car. TM: What's the novel about? HL: It's about a guy named John. He's sort of on a vague road trip. I say vague because it has no plot outline whatsoever. All five of us are writing without any knowledge of what the others are writing. When we get it all together in the end, I hope it will make sense. But even if it doesn't, I think it will be really funny.
TM: So far in your career, what has been your favorite onstage performance? HL: My favorite performance was at the Chicago Metro. It was definitely my favorite show we ever played...It was a really big place and we sold it out. And that was big for us I remember. And it was the first time people really knew our songs. The record had come out. It felt like people really wanted to see us and we were in tip-top shape. It was right at the beginning and all the songs were new and fun. It was just a new thing. When you do it again and it's fun, it's still never quite as fun as that.
TM: What's been your worst onstage performance? Any horror stories? HL: Worst? I've got a lot of those... We've had boring, downer shows, but those aren't fun to mention though. I've had the mic off for three songs in a row...that was a real downer. I sang three songs and then after the third song, someone yelled out, "Your mic's not on!" (laughs) That's a bummer.
TM: I know a lot of the band members were playing music together as early as fifth grade. What kind of music were you guys playing at that young age? HL: It started out with Walt's band, playing Sex Pistols covers and Clash covers I guess. In high school, Walt and Paul and Matt played straight ska, like Madness or the Toasters or something like that. And in high school, me and Pete played just terrible, terrible sounding rock and roll with loud distorted guitars and slap bass. I don't even know what you'd call it. As bad as it gets really. And then when we were in college, we played like punk sort of stuff. And then the other guys were in this band Jonathan Fire*Eater. And they played just rock, I guess.
TM: What's it like playing with people you've known for so long? Does it make things easier? HL: Sometimes, and sometimes it's harder. In the end, though, the pros outweigh the cons...It can be a problem. You know what the other guys are thinking and nothing seems knew. There doesn't seem to be an influx of new ideas. But in the end you want the other guys there. Everyone sort of balances each other out. And it's a big help.
TM: I love your cover of the Drifters' song "There Goes My Baby" (originally released by the Drifters in 1959). The band in general seems inspired by older music, older instruments and older recording techniques. What do you like about the music of the past? HL: It just seems like rock and roll got worse and worse in the middle of the ‘70s. There are just so many more records I like so much more from the ‘60s and the ‘70s. There was still good stuff in the ‘80s and the ‘90s, but it just seemed like it was so much more prevalent before that. I listen to a lot of stuff, but it just seems like there were more really, really great bands making really great music at an earlier time.
TM: What are some of your favorite bands from that period? HL: If I think of earlier (music): Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles. They are all there at the exact same time. And the list goes on and on.
TM: In your opinion, who puts on an incredible live show? Are there any bands you'd like to emulate? HL: I saw the Cramps one time and they blew my socks off. I'd like to be like them. I mean we can't. It would be ridiculous. But I'd like to be like that...They just go crazy...biting the microphone head off and spitting it out, just spitting everywhere...Just really fun to watch. (laughs)
In-depth Biography The Walkmen feature three members from Jonathan Fire*Eater and two from the Recoys. When Jonathan Fire*Eater disbanded in 1998, the group took the remainder of their Dreamworks funding and established an uptown rehearsal space in New York City that doubled as a 24-track recording studio where they use a wide variety of vintage equipment. The 900-square-foot Harlem industrial space, dubbed Marcata Studios, was completed in the fall of 1999. (Bands that have recorded at their studio include labelmates the French Kicks and experimental rockers Arto Lindsay and Nação Zumbi.) The Walkmen, some of whom had gigged in the city under the moniker Today Okay, formed in 2000 and consist of Fire Eaters Walter Martin (vocals, organ, etc.), Paul Maroon (guitars), and Matt Barrick (drums) and ex-Recoys Hamilton Leithauser (vocals) and Peter Bauer (bass). Like Jonathan Fire*Eater, the members of the Walkmen grew up together in the Washington, D.C., area and have played in the same bands since the fifth grade. Perhaps the only way the group could be any closer is if they were all related. (Martin and Leithauser are cousins, so the semi-merging of bands is also somewhat of a family reunion.)
The Walkmen make a conscious attempt to evolve away from the raw, fiery garage sounds of their previous bands. They incorporate piano into the new songs as well as take the compositions in new directions by experimenting with instrumentation and recording techniques. The Walkmen are influenced by such diverse bands as the Pogues, Joy Division, Bruce Springsteen, Björk, U2, New Order, the Smiths, and the Cure. Their new music has favorably been compared to Pixies, Brian Eno, and the Velvet Underground with strong hints of U2 and Television. An online advertisement for the Marcata Studios explains that the owners appreciate the sonic recordings on Joy Division's Peel Sessions, Talking Heads' Fear of Music, the Specials' The Specials, and Royal Trux's Singles, among others.
The Walkmen released a self-titled, four-song EP in 1999 through the small Brooklyn label Startime International (Brendan Benson) and completed a vinyl-only release to be made available at concerts. The first Walkmen concert was at Joe's Pub in the East Village in September of 2000, shortly after their EP was released. In 2002, the Walkmen made their proper full-length debut with Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone. It was a favorite among indie crowds and the album led the Walkmen to tour the world in support of it. Bows + Arrows, the band's first for Warner Bros.' Record Collection label, appeared two years later. Along with touring and appearing in a cameo on the Fox TV series The O.C., the Walkmen began writing a novel, -John's Journey, together. The band returned to the studio in 2005, working with Don Zientera at Arlington, VA's Inner Ear Studio on their third album, A Hundred Miles Off, and at their own Marcata Studio on a song-by-song cover of Harry Nilsson's Pussy Cats, which was the last album recorded in Marcata before the band closed it. A Hundred Miles Off was released in spring 2006, and Pussy Cats arrived that fall. The Walkmen recorded their fourth album in New York's Gigantic Studio and the same Oxford, MS, studio in which they recorded Bows + Arrows, releasing You & Me in 2008 on Gigantic Music. Lisbon, the group's sixth studio album, arrived in 2010 on the Fat Possum/Bella Union label. The following year, the Walkmen celebrated their 10th anniversary as a band while recording with Phil Ek; the results, Heaven, arrived in 2012.~ JT Griffith, Rovi